Friday, January 3, 2014

Dear Elan Readers:

I invite you to join me, beginning in 2014, at my new blog for

(Clink on the title to go to the website)


John A. McCurdy

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

My 30 Personal Favourite Music Recordings / Compositions (Chronological)

1. The Brandenburg Concertos – Johanne Sebastian Bach (1708-1721)
2. The Four Seasons – Antonio Vivaldi (1721)
3. The Magic Flute – Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1791)
4. Violin Concerto in D Major, Opus 61 – Ludwig Van Beethoven (1806)
5. Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, Opus 67 – Ludwig Van Beethoven (1804-1808)
6. Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, Opus 125 – Ludwig Van Beethoven (1824)
7. Gymnopédies [3] – Erik Satie (1888)
8. Bolero – Maurice Ravel (1928)
9. The Sun Sessions – Elvis Presley (1954-1956)
10. Bach: The Goldberg Variations – Glenn Gould (1955)
11. Moanin’ in the Moonlight – Howlin Wolf (1958)
12. Kind of Blue – Miles Davis (1959)
13. Highway 61 Revisited – Bob Dylan (1965)
14. The Beatles – The Beatles (1968)
15. Let It Bleed – The Rolling Stones (1969)
16. Who’s Next – The Who (1971)
17. What’s Going On – Marvin Gaye (1971)
18. The Dark Side of the Moon - Pink Floyd (1973)
19. Court and Spark – Joni Mitchell (1974)
20. Music for 18 Musicians – Steve Reich (1974-1976)
21. Humans – Bruce Cockburn (1980)
22. Koyaanisqatsi – Philip Glass (1981-1982)
23. Big Science – Laurie Anderson (1982)
24. Nebraska – Bruce Springsteen (1982)
25. The Pearl – Harold Budd and Brian Eno, with Daniel Lanois (1984)
26. Purple Rain – Prince and the Revolution (1984)
27. Stealing Fire – Bruce Cockburn (1984)
28. Hounds of Love – Kate Bush (1985)
29. So – Peter Gabriel (1986)
30. The Joshua Tree – U2 (1987)

Saturday, December 15, 2012

My 30 Personal Favourite Films (Alphabetical)

Sad to say, I have been too busy recently to write for Elan. However, I managed one idle afternoon this past week to take stock of all the wonderful (and, in some cases, less than wonderful) films I've seen over the years. Film is something I've taken quite seriously since the age of sixteen, when my friends and I took the bold step of founding our own film club of sorts. We called it Cult Movie Night and held it normally on Friday evenings back in my hometown of Burlington, Ontario.

It wasn't long, however, before we found ourselves viewing more than mere 'cult films.' Soon, we were watching a wide range of great films, at first primarily American, but eventually European ones also. Several of my best friends at the time attempted to create their own films, often as creative projects for high school English classes. We also took to seeing new and classic foreign films at the Broadway Cinema, then Hamilton's premier art house theatre, which doubled at the time as the city's most stimulating art gallery.

Shortly after completing high school I embarked on a personal study of the history of film, inspired especially by a list of great films passed down to me by a friend's older brother, who for several years had aspired to become the next Al Pacino.

And I have been going out of my way to watch great films ever since.

So, without further ado, here is an alphabetical list of my sixty personal favourite films, including their titles, directors, and year of release. Most of my choices I would assume others might support as well, though there are no doubt films in my list whose virtues are peculiar to my own personal tastes. Nevertheless ... happy reading, and, perhaps, as well, happy viewing ...

My 30 Personal Favourite Films

-American Beauty (Sam Mendes, 1999)
-Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979)
-Baraka (Ron Fricke, 1992)
-Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982)
-The Breakfast Club (John Hughes, 1985)
-Che (Steven Soderberg, 2008)
-Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941)
-Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Ang Lee 2000)
-Cyrano de Bergerac (Jean-Paul Rappeneau, 1990)
-Dead Poet's Society (Peter Weir, 1989)
-The Double Life of Veronique (Krzysztof Kieslowski, 1991)
-Downfall (Oliver Hirschbiegel, 2004)
-8 and a Half (Federico Fellini, 1963)
-Ferris Bueller's Day Off (John Hughes, 1986)
-Gandhi (Richard Attenborough, 1982)
-The Godfather I (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972)
-Koyaanisquatsi (Godfrey Reggio, 1983)
-The Lives of Others (Florean Henckel von Donnersmarck, 2006)
-A Month in the Country (Pat O'Connor, 1987)
-Napoleon Dynamite (Jared Hess, 2004)
-No Country for Old Men (Coen Brothers, 2007)
-Pride and Prejudice (Joe Wright, 2005)
-Red (Krzysztof Kieslowski, 1994)
-The Seventh Seal (Ingmar Bergman, 1957)
-The Stalker (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1979)
-A Streetcar Named Desire (Elia Kazan, 1951)
-The Thin Red Line (Terrence Malick, 1998)
-The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick, 2011)
-Waterwalker (Bill Mason, 1986)
-Witness (Peter Weir, 1985)

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Canadian Education Association has just released a study about Canadian teachers titled "Teaching the Way we Aspire to Teach: Now and in the Future":

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Review of Someone Has to Fail: The Zero-Sum Game of Public Schooling, by David F. Labaree

Book cover from Harvard University Press website: 

This past week I published an in-depth review of Someone Has to Fail: The Zero-Sum Game of Public Schooling, a book of interrelated essays by Stanford University Professor of Education David F. Labaree, for H-Net's history of education network. You can access a PDF of the review here:

Labaree's book divides into two parts. In the first of these he attempts to reconstruct the history of education reform in the United States in broad strokes from the 1630s in Boston to the close of the twentieth century, citing five major waves of reform: 

(1) the Common School Movement, pioneered in the early 1800s; 
(2) the Progressive movement, which prevailed from the late 1800s up to the 1950s; 
(3) the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s; 
(4) the Standards and Standarization movements, set in motion in the 1980s and 1990s; 
(5) and finally the Choice movement, dating from the late 1990s and continuing today. 

The second part of his book is given over to exploring the syndrome Labaree calls 'educationalization,' the phenomenon by which the vast majority of Americans look to education as a means of resolving social problems. Schools alone, he concludes, cannot achieve such goals as enhancing social mobility, social equality, or social efficiency. 

In my review I redraw Labaree's historical narrative in miniature, while detailing his understanding of the limitations of American public schooling. I argue that his book is less about the limits of public schooling than it is about the limits of liberalism. Finally, I question whether the limits of liberalism, as far as America is concerned, are really relevant any longer, as the United States, it seems to me, is best characterized as a corporatocracy as opposed to a liberal democracy. 

Those interested in probing the issue of education reform and public schooling further should read American education historian Diane Ravitch's recent New York Review of Books articles:

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Harper's Magazine: The finest English-language general interest magazine

Earlier this week I finished reading the August 2011 issue of Harper’s Magazine ( True - four months is a long time to take to finish a single issue of a monthly magazine. In part, I’ve been too busy to read material not directly related to my working life. But mostly I took so long because I didn’t feel rushed. Harper's is simply a pleasure to savor. Further, months after publication its contents retain a remarkable currency. Indeed, the mainstream newspapers that I also read continue  referencing issues explored in Harper's months ago. Here, in any case, are some highlights from the August issue:

Petra Bartosiewicz’s “To Catch a Terrorist” will shock those not yet acquainted with the shadowy workings of the Intelligence world. For starters, Bartosiewicz’s reveals, only one person, according to U.S. Department of Justice records, has attempted to commit a terrorist act on American soil and been convicted since 9/11. At the same time the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) claims it has “amassed more than 1,000 federal ‘terrorism-associated’ prosecutions” during the same ten years. 

Why the totally divergent statistics? Because, Bartosiewicz explicitly states, the FBI is running a de facto ‘protection racket.’ Its details are unknown to most Americans or are otherwise classified on the grounds of 'national security.' It targets so-called ‘pre-terrorists,’ using informants (conscious, arms-length FBI allies) to rope so-called suspects (defined however the U.S. government wishes) into attempting terrorist acts, or else into merely associating with alleged terrorists, terrorist rhetoric, or loose terrorist networks. The article cites the telling example of the Miami Seven, an alleged terrorist cell said to have been busted by the FBI in 2006 for planning an attack on the Chicago Sears Tower. The plot, along with its rhetoric, as well as the opportunity for the attack, were all developed by two FBI informants. 

This pre-emptive ‘racket’, moreover, predominantly targets Muslims. Indeed, they are now essentially the exclusive target of U.S. Homeland Security terrorism-related Intelligence work. Most of this work is done at the ground level by U.S. Intelligence fusion centres, that integrate "all levels of law enforcement." The first was established in 2003. Clearly the central question this and similar scenarios raises is: Where exactly do terrorism investigations end, and terrorist acts begin? 

Ultimately, Bartosiewicz notes, today’s FBI is at liberty to “spy on whomever it wishes, for however long it wishes, even if that individual has never committed a crime or, more important, is not even suspected of one.” Further, though it is officially barred from the racial profiling of suspects, it remains otherwise free to pursue essentially the same ends through religious and/or nation-of-origin profiling. As well, Bartosiewicz adds: 

“Enhanced surveillance and wire-tapping powers initially passed under the PATRIOT Act can now be used against citizens who are merely ‘suspected of associating with radical activists’ … [including] left-leaning political protesters, whether anti-globalist, anti-capitalist, or anti-war.”

Presumably, this  includes participants in the Occupy movement that has swept American and international cities this fall?

There is so much more that I could say about the solid contents of the August 2011 issue of Harper's. In particular, don't miss Nathaniel Rich’s street-level exposé, The Luckiest Woman on Earth: Three ways to win the lottery," about the almost certainly compromised Texas Lottery system. In what remains of this post though I will restrict myself to highlighting some key points made by Canadian philosopher Mark Kingwell in "The Tomist," his review of American neo-conservative Francis Fukuyama’s new book The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution

Kingwell's review is noteworthy less for what it says about Fukuyama - the book earns a negative review for failing to take a discernible position – and more for its courage in naming politics as the sham that it is. “Institutions of politics,” Kingwell remarks, justify “the advantages of the few in terms that will be swallowed by the many.” Further, he notes, if they believe they must they will use force without justification to maintain those advantages if and when the otherwise reliable force of ideology (brainwashing, conditioning, material security and comforts) fails to maintain the status quo. Elsewhere, Kingwell succinctly spells out just what this system of advantages look like:

“[E]very political system known to history has been dedicated to some form or other of legitimated extortion: polls, taxes, fines, bribes, and rents, together with their financial-arms-race counterparts of evasion, loopholes, lawyers, and regulatory capture.”

Sound bleak? Perhaps, although as 2011 draws to a close and the wealth gap in most countries widens, one must seriously wonder and ponder.

First published in 1850, Harper’s remains America’s second longest continuously running magazine after Scientific American, which, in any case, is only its senior by five years. As readily available in drug stores and gas station magazine stands as in Canada’s big box and independent bookstores, Harper’s may well be the English-speaking world’s most rewarding and well-balanced monthly read. Throughout its venerable one-hundred and sixty-one year publishing history, its pages, as Wikipedia notes, have offered up the writings of everyone from Herman Melville and Mark Twain in the nineteenth century, to Winston Churchill and Sylvia Plath in the twentieth. During the past forty years its longest serving editor and contributor was Lewis H. Lapham, who stepped aside in 2006 to found a new publication known as Lapham’s Quarterly.

Continuous publication of Harper’s Magazine, as Wikipedia also notes, has been threatened on at least two notable occasions. The first instance was provoked by a perceived reactionary change in the magazine’s primary ownership, John Cowles, Jr., being the dominant backer at the time. A wave of high profile editorial and other resignations ensued, among them the well-known Norman Mailer and Bill Moyers. A second threat to the magazine’s publication transpired in the early 1980s, when the then majority controller Star Tribune announced that Harper’s would fold. In response, John R. MacArthur intervened, and with the help of several organizations established the Harper’s Magazine Foundation, which continues to publish the magazine today.  Today, in the words of Wikipedia writers, Harper’s remains a consistent and effective internal critic of American domestic and foreign policy.

Beyond all this, Harper’s is distinguished by a principled exercise of imaginative reason, a rare cosmopolitan ethos, and a uniquely tangible humanistic practice. Sober and insightful, its writers normally succeed in critiquing the increasingly mad world we inhabit without falling back on crude or rigid ideological positions. While this stance will disappoint committed Leftists, who will prefer the pages of Canadian Dimension or Z Magazine or Monthly Review, it has the undeniable virtue of enabling a forum in which a spectrum of readers can discourse and, yes, disagree, including social democrats, liberals, and even some conservatives. That being said, Harper’s has consistently published some of the most radical analyses and forward looking articles to appear on the mass market in North America in recent years. 

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Becoming Dr. Strange: Thoughts on episode one of season four of CBC's Being Erica

Image: Screen shot of character Erica Strange (played by Erin Karpluk) from CBC's Being Erica; original shot posted at Britts On blog

I've long been a fan of the CBC's (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's) adult television drama Being Erica, now in its fourth season as of yesterday's new "Doctor Who?" episode (clever title).

"Doctor Who?" was challenging though. It left me, and probably most loyal viewers, with initially mixed feelings - as it surely was meant to. In today's post I attempt to understand these. The post presupposes long standing familiarity with the show though, so newbies may want to skip this entry.

So: mixed feelings. They were provoked by the episode's surprising plot and arguably shocking character twists, Some may strike some as downright inauthentic. Not wishing to spoil the episode, all I ask is whether the show's writers are sacrificing the integrity of Erica's character in a now impatient attempt to drive the show's narrative logic home by season's end? I will try to answer this question by characterizing this logic as both spiritual and psychological, and by summing its operative belief system up as the necessity that each of us engage in a conscious struggle at becoming fully human. This humanizing process, the show emphasizes, is filled with both moments of joy and of pain. Yet growth ultimately leads the individual beyond the normal confines of the ego into a way of being that heals both the self and ultimately all else it encounters.

Heady stuff - for a prime time Canadian drama. 

But again, the question is whether the integrity of Erica's character is being subordinated to the show's spiritual and psychological logic? If so, it wouldn't be the first time character was subordinated to plot or theme in television history, as television characters often serve as  vehicles or foils for ideas or narrative twists. We may not approve, when this occurs. Yet, as experienced viewers, we are generally forgiving. After all, the medium of television is driven by fundamentally different forces than film or literature, for instance, are. We expect a good film or a literary novel to illuminate character and to subordinate narrative and conceptual concerns in the service of this imperative.

Now, despite my initial mixed feelings, it seems to me the often shocking plot and character twists in episode one of season four of Being Erica were justified. This is so because Erica is now a therapist training. Consequently, as her colourful therapist Dr. Tom puts it in the episode, her life now is driven by a new imperative: she must strive to become her patient. How is this to be accomplished? By surrendering the ego's self-regarding imperatives. This  permits both patient and therapist to experience a fully human encounter on equal footing. Or, to put the matter differently: Erica's character is rapidly converging with the show's narrative logic. Being Erica is about to become: Becoming Erica.